Editing the infamous Gordon Lish.

All about fiction.
Oct. 31 2007 6:12 PM

I Was Gordon Lish's Editor

Not that he let me do any editing.

Click here  to read more from Slate's Fall Fiction Week.

Gordon Lish.
Gordon Lish

A recent article in the New York Times about the desire of Tess Gallagher, Raymond Carver's widow, to have Carver's stories published in their original, unedited form, has ignited a controversy over the slash-and-burn handiwork of his first editor, Gordon Lish. This contretemps has brought back memories of my own brief stint as Lish's editor.

It was Don DeLillo's fault. I was working for W.W. Norton in 1991 when he gave me a call. I'd had the privilege of being his editor on Libra, and we'd stayed friends. Lish had also been Don's editor at Esquire, and DeLillo had dedicated one of his novels to him. After some pleasantries, Don came to the point:

Advertisement

"Gordon Lish is looking for a new publisher."

Uh-huh.

"He's finished a novel, and I think he's broken through into new territory."

Hmmm.

I had reasons to be both intrigued and extremely wary. As a college student all hot for literature I'd had my brain waves rearranged and my taste in fiction formed by the amazingly odd and disturbing stories Gordon Lish had published in Esquire as its fiction editor from 1969 to 1976. I still vividly remember the wave of existential disquiet that swept over me when I read Carver's "Neighbors" in those pages. What was that?There, and later at Knopf, Lish brought forth a new kind of American fiction—gnomic, stripped-down, psychologically charged but jagged and resistant to explanation—that would come to be known variously as "Minimalism" and "Kmart Realism." In addition to Raymond Carver, he'd published such striking talents as Barry Hannah, Amy Hempel, Joy Williams, Mary Robison, Cynthia Ozick, and, his maximalist odd man out, Harold Brodkey, while appointing himself "Captain Fiction"—a faintly ridiculous sobriquet that nonetheless captured with some accuracy his standing in the literary world.

Concurrently, Lish had gained notoriety as a teacher of creative writing, one whose classes bore more than a passing resemblance to such '70s-era phenomena as primal scream therapy (feel the pain!) and EST (no peeing!). In the foreword to his anthology All Our Secrets Are the Same, he defined his taste this way: "My principal concerns are paralysis, death, home, the things people live with, the violence that is in us, flight from all those concerns, a piece of brisk whistling in the long-toothed dark, and God, I just can't get enough of that wonderful stuff …" In the strict Lishian aesthetic, where silences often spoke more clearly than words, characters gave voice to their traumas with a kind of mute, cracked eloquence and off-slant detailing. "He did like kidneys, that was one thing," a young divorcee remembers of her ex-husband in a Joy Williams story. "He loved kidneys for the weekend lunch." Who knew that organ meats could have an emotional valence? This style spread through America's creative writing programs and literary magazines like measles through an elementary school, sweeping the conventional well-made story into the dustbin of literary history, or so it seemed. And that was all right with me.

Lish had also developed into a fiction writer of note, a calculating provocateur and something of a tummler. His first novel, Dear Mr. Capote (1983), took the form of letters from a serial killer inviting the author of In Cold Blood to write his story next. The book virtually invented a genre of novels featuring hyper-literary mass murderers. And Lish's short stories, first collected in What I Know So Far (1984), were, well, quite Lishian; one, "To Jerome, With Love and Kisses," was sheer genius, a hectoring lecture to J.D. Salinger from his estranged father demanding that Salinger stay more in touch, the way Phil Roth and Bernie Malamud did with their fathers.

TODAY IN SLATE

Doublex

Crying Rape

False rape accusations exist, and they are a serious problem.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

The Music Industry Is Ignoring Some of the Best Black Women Singing R&B

How Will You Carry Around Your Huge New iPhone? Apple Pants!

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

Television

The Other Huxtable Effect

Thirty years ago, The Cosby Show gave us one of TV’s great feminists.

Lifetime Didn’t Find the Steubenville Rape Case Dramatic Enough. So They Added a Little Self-Immolation.

No, New York Times, Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman” 

Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 1:39 PM Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman,” New York Times. Neither Are Her Characters.
Behold
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM An Up-Close Look at the U.S.–Mexico Border
  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 19 2014 6:22 PM Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 19 2014 6:35 PM Pabst Blue Ribbon is Being Sold to the Russians, Was So Over Anyway
  Life
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 19 2014 1:34 PM Empty Seats, Fewer Donors? College football isn’t attracting the audience it used to.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 4:48 PM You Should Be Listening to Sbtrkt
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 19 2014 5:09 PM Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?   A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.